REVIEW: La vie d’Adèle [Blue Is the Warmest Color] [2013]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NC-17 | Runtime: 179 minutes | Release Date: October 9th, 2013 (France)
Studio: Wild Bunch Distribution / Sundance Selects
Director(s): Abdellatif Kechiche
Writer(s): Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix / Julie Maroh (novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude)

“Tragedy is the unavoidable”

While you wouldn’t usually believe something could possibly become more controversial than its own distinction of being a three-hour NC-17 film about a fifteen-year old girl searching for her sexuality and the resulting love shaping her trajectory towards adulthood, talk during La vie d’Adèle’s [Blue Is the Warmest Color] festival tour proved otherwise. Director Abdellatif Kechiche declared it to have been sullied to the extent where it shouldn’t be released while stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos discussed the arduous shoot in a way that made it appear to border on abuse before also stating they’d never work with the French auteur again. Even as they’ve made-up to embrace the Palme d’Or-winning film’s critically acclaimed international roll-out—it won’t be France’s choice for Oscar glory, though—the buzz surrounding it can’t let go of the turmoil.

Why would it, though? Homosexuality is such a hot-button issue that any story—good or bad—possessing it as a central point of fact is going to sell papers, increase ratings, and provide extremely high click counts online. Such an unavoidable response simultaneously helps expose a more-or-less ignorant public to a vibrant piece of emotive and necessary foreign cinema as it hurts by letting a manufactured cloud of taboo cover the reality of its tale being merely an authentic portrayal of love and the messy path on which it takes us. People will call it a lesbian film and harp on its graphic, uncensored sex scenes as excessively homoerotic, but they’ll be missing the point. Had it been a man and woman at the center, the film would have been the same with much less controversy.

So let the media pigeonhole this powerful depiction of humanity and the struggle between personal and professional lives threatening to break us as easily as keep us safe—especially if it sells more tickets. Because you and I will understand that the events onscreen transcend gender and sexual orientation to make the trials and tribulations of idealistic youth yearning to make a difference universal and completely relatable. We’ve all had the high school crush, faced catty ridicule and vicious embarrassment for some life choice or another, and hopefully found one person in the crowd we simply cannot nor want to ignore. Our lives have been changed by love to a point where compromise blurs with co-dependence and individuality with union until we’re faced with a choice about whether our present situation is also the future we covet.

This is the journey set before Adèle (Exarchopoulos) as she engrosses herself in French literature and the ideas her teacher instills. It’s here where she decides to become a teacher so she too can help make a difference in the lives of students like she has experienced throughout her own education. It’s also here where she catches the eye of Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), a boy each of her friends would trade places to have fawn over them in a heartbeat. But while this generically conservative path towards marriage, kids, and career starts to manifest in front of her, something is missing—something that causes an inability to shake the feeling she’s “faking” everything. No, it’s only when she passes a blue-haired, angelic tomboy in the streets that she truly finds herself in the midst of sensory overload.

She tries to make it work with Thomas before she realizes it never could. Intimate fantasies in bed with this unknown girl instead of her boyfriend make this realization unavoidable. So she looks to get away from the normalcy she’s been taught—hitting up a gay bar with best friend Valentin (Sandor Funtek) and fatefully crossing paths with her infatuation. Emma (Seydoux) is older, studying to be a painter at university while also much more experienced in the lifestyle Adèle finds herself standing precariously on the cusp of falling into. There is an electricity between them as each becomes the other’s muse in the aftermath of a powerful sexual craving being satiated to the point where any of the awkwardness their contrasting social upbringings provides or Adèle’s tentative acceptance of “coming out” is readily ignored.

Fast-forward a few years and we see what has and hasn’t changed. We don’t need to experience the honeymoon period of their unadulterated love—one extended session of carnality is enough to understand how satisfying and pure it is. Instead we rejoin them as adulthood brings outside conflict to seep into their relationship and bedroom. Emma’s artistic friends begin to alienate Adèle’s simpler lifestyle as casual flirtations threaten everything they’ve built. New objects of affection whether accidental or not come into view in the form of the former’s pregnant friend Lise (Mona Walravens), the latter’s coworker Antoine (Benjamin Siksou), and a wild card in actor Samir (Salim Kechiouche), each eliciting smiles the other previously held a monopoly on. It takes just one slip to watch it crumble and one rejection to realize the hope of forever is lost.

Inspired by Julie Maroh‘s graphic novel and an unfinished script by director Kechiche, he and regular collaborator Ghalia Lacroix have crafted a story that fearlessly enters the depths of love, pain, and regret. Shot in mostly close-up with stunning sequences devoid of dialogue to help focus on the characters’ emotional states stripped of inhibitions while on the dance floor or in a naked embrace, we watch as the years progress to show professional maturity and personal struggle. Unparalleled sexual satisfaction becomes but one piece to the puzzle after it had been everything and life is exposed as an ever-changing creature riddled with love lost, eternal tenderness, and the impossibility of dealing with such a reality no matter time passed. Truth is onscreen above taboo and hopefully this film steps towards a world where love exists beyond label.

And while behind the scenes talk about strife, crew resignations, and the harrowing experiences had by both actresses may be exaggerated, minimized, or absolutely on point, you can’t help draw parallels to auteurs like Stanley Kubrick and Lars von Trier—each known getting the most of their actors with formidably terrifying on-set personas. I’m not saying Kechiche was right or wrong or things did or didn’t happen, but whether we’re able to put all that aside or not shouldn’t diminish the captivating performances Seydoux and Exarchopoulos give. They bear their souls onscreen by exposing themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually inside one of the most realistic cinematic depictions of love I’ve seen. At its core Adèle’s story, Emma is so intertwined that you still see her through Exarchopoulos’ tears despite not being there. This is the love that defines them—whether it’s their first, fifteenth, or last.

[1] Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) (L) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) in Abdellatif Kechiche’s BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. Courtesy of Sundance Selects.
[2] Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) (L) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) in Abdellatif Kechiche’s BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. Courtesy of Sundance Selects.
[3] Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) in Abdellatif Kechiche’s BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. Courtesy of Sundance Selects.

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